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Dark Voyager review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)


It’s difficult to know who to feel most sorry for in John Misto’s new play Dark Voyager.Should your sympathy go to director Anna Crawford, who struggles to bring life to an utterly confused script? Or the cast, who are better than the material they’ve been given? Or maybe Misto himself, for failing to realise his vision and find the drama in some of the most fascinating Hollywood stars of all time.

The play begins with a fictional meeting between ageing icons Joan Crawford (Kate Raison), Bette Davis (Jeanette Cronin) and legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Belinda Giblin). It’s on the eve of the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Crawford and Davis are at the height of their feud. The studio is expecting the film to be a complete flop, but Crawford and Davis try their hardest to band together and get Hopper onside for positive press coverage, while Hopper is simultaneously trying to get the pair together for her own purposes. At the end of the first act, Crawford bets Davis that she can get Marilyn Monroe (Lizzie Mitchell) to show up to their meeting. They send Hopper’s house boy Skip (Eric Beecroft) to collect her, and, lo and behold, she shows, completely off her face on pills and booze.

There are problems throughout the production, but the biggest failings are in Misto’s script. This is a play about ruthless ambition, but completely lacking in ambition. There’s nothing wrong with the kind of light, frivolous comedy Misto is aiming for, but if it’s not done well, there’s little point.

The construction is poor, and at almost two and a half hours, it’s far too long for such thin material. At one point, Misto needs to move Skip offstage for a private exchange between two characters. Skip announces that he is “going to get drunk” and wanders off the stage. He returns five minutes later. With a bottle. Drunk.

The thrills are meant to come from the barbs and zingers the Hollywood dames throw at each other, but the barbs largely fail to pierce the skin and the zingers don’t zing. Many of the gags work on homophobic stereotypes — “There are two men out there in black suits”, “They sound like your lesbian fans, Joan” — and aren’t anywhere near funny enough to justify their inclusion. And there are lines that simply baffle, like, “Have you ever heard of the guillotine?” (the answer is yes) and “Even your toenails have curves”. By the final half an hour, I was glad I hadn’t cloaked my coat, as I needed something to muffle my laughter in inappropriate moments.

There are plenty of twists in the final act, mostly drawn from a collection of rumours about the stars, but it’s far too late to care about the tangled web Misto has woven.

None of the performances move beyond caricature, even with Jeanette Cronin’s admirable and relentless attempts to make the material stick. Her Bette Davis is so broad even Davis herself would think it’d gone too far. Kate Raison tries the quiet, dignified image of Crawford, but just ends up falling flat, while Giblin is full of unfocused energy as Hopper. Mitchell brings every Monroe-esque vocal flourish and mannerism you’d expect, but little else. It’s a fine impersonation, but lacks any dramatic force. Beecroft is fine in the first act as Skip, who is completely lacking in confidence, but desperate to make a name for himself. But his characterisation falls apart when the denouement comes.

Anna Gardiner’s set makes it over the line with its black and white art deco styling, but the costumes don’t have an ounce of the glamour or sophistication she’s trying to conjure.

Really, you have to feel most sorry for the audience. I don’t understand how this play ended up on the Ensemble stage in the state it’s currently in. I assume it’s due to Misto’s reputation, but every playwright can do with some decent dramaturgical advice every now and then.

Dark Voyager is at Ensemble Theatre until 30 August.

12 responses to “Dark Voyager review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

  1. I managed to sit through the first half, then fled at intermission. Jeanette Cronin’s infantile and screeching Bette Davis was agony. Kate Raison’s performance was as flat as a pancake as she tried to present a more dignified Joan Crawford. The costumes looked as though they had been run up on auntie Beryl’s Singer and needed a good pressing. What a disappointment the whole production was. Marilyn Monroe’s line on entry at the close of Act 1 proved too ridiculous to even consider prolonging the pain.

  2. Ben Neutze – did we watch the same play ???

    I saw “Dark Voyager” at yesterdays matinee and as someone originally from London who has been very spoilt by great theater all his life, I have to contest this is one of the most thought provoking, caustically witty and well acted plays I have seen!

    It’s a real shame if your review stops the lovely readers of The Daily Review to treating them selves to such a well crafted and well written play.

    I think John Misto has delivered something that you cannot quite get your head around yet – my only problem with it is I can’t get another ticket to see it again!

    The public yesterday loved it and I’m pleased to say it got me talking to a very gorgeous lady on the way out who equally enjoyed the plays witty banter and very interesting facts on the leading ladies.

    We discussed this cutting edge play over coffee later & wondered why there are not more plays like this in Australia that dare to question and explore other avenues of writing and acting.

    Dark Voyager is an excellent play and I hope the readers of The Daily Review can by pass your opinion and go see it for themselves as they are going to be treated to a great show that is bitingly sharp!

    I’ll use a line with all respect from your review and add something of mine to close…

    “I assume it’s due to Ben Neutze reputation, but every journalist and critic can do with some decent dramaturgical advice every now and then.”

  3. Saw this last night and along with the packed audience really liked it (based on lots of laughter and clapping). Yes there are flaws, elements of misogamy but the acting is fabulous.

    1. Fully agree Julie.
      A very witty, well written play that the actors are relishing!
      You can see it in the performances how much they are loving the script they have been given – every cutting edge actors dream this one!

  4. Worth seeing.
    Went with a group of theatre friends and we all enjoyed it,don’t no where Ben is coming from.A good play to talk about at a dinner party,my only comment is 15 minutes to long

    1. A great play to talk about over dinner and…breakfast if you’re lucky!
      Definitely worth seeing Les – ignited my belief in original theater again!

  5. Ben, you’re being kind. This is a theatrical mess. Misto is disrespectful to all the accomplished, smart, professional women involved in this. I was sickened to see Bette Davis portrayed as a farcical schoolgirl. And you forgot to mention Joan Crawford’s long lost son’s attempted seduction of his mother. How did the horrendous characterisation, plotting and dialogue get past the female director? I wish I was as blotto as everyone seemed to be to sit through this.

  6. ouch! I really am dying to see this now…. I’ve only heard glowing reviews so far so i can’t wait to see what i personally think….

    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did Brad.
      Its probably one of the most original, thought provoking and funniest plays I’ve seen in years!


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